The San Juan Mountains took away Alana Nichols’ ability to walk, but it never diminished her love for the mountains she calls home.
Nichols, 32, was in high school when a trip in the backcountry north of Hesperus changed her life. While attempting a back flip, the snowboarder from Farmington landed back-first on a rock and was paralyzed from the waist down.
The injury did not slow Nichols, a four-time Paralympic athlete in wheelchair basketball and alpine skiing. She became the first American woman to win gold medals in the summer and winter Games, and last weekend, Nichols made more history when she became the first adaptive skier to descend Silverton Mountain on a monoski.
“I feel at home every time I come back here. The San Juan Mountains have been a blessing for me through and through,” Nichols said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “I learned how to snowboard at Purgatory and then broke my back and re-learned how to sit-ski at Purgatory. This area of the country has taken parts of me and given them back.
“All-in-all, I’m incredibly blessed by those mountains, and feel even more connected to them now that I’ve skied Silverton.”
Silverton Mountain offers some of the most difficult ski terrain in the continental United States. The base sits at 10,400 feet, and the mountain offers one chairlift that rises to 12,300 feet. It is well known for its heli-skiing and backcountry challenges.
Nichols said Silverton Mountain was her ultimate bucket-list destination from the time she started to snowboard as a 14-year-old.
She planned to spend the New Year’s holiday in Silverton with friends while on vacation from her new home in San Diego, where she is training for paracanoe in hopes of qualifying for the 2015 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio De Janeiro.
Plans quickly went into place for her first descent of the famously steep mountain.
“The stoke was high in town for me. Everyone who saw me in the parking lot, lift line, on the shuttle bus, they were all giving high-fives and telling me how great it was to see me out,” Nichols said. “I felt really special.”
Nichols, who is now retired from alpine ski racing, took a team of five with her Saturday and skied a chute on the West face known as Tiger No. 2. After testing her turns and the snow conditions, she went up and took the Liftline down. She called the Liftline the most difficult task because of thick, choppy snow, and she wished she had brought a wider powder ski.
Nichols admitted to having the same nerves she would before a big Paralympic alpine ski race, but being part of an enthusiastic group helped her find a comfort zone. “It was amazing to watch,” said Nichols’ friend and ski partner William Lampe. “She would maybe get the point of her ski stuck in deep snow and need help to get the point out, but, if she ever fell or went down, she could correct herself easily and keep going. As far as I could tell, nothing bothered her at all. It’s tough skiing for anybody, and I was exhausted watching her, but everything went really smooth…”